Design Needs a Social Conscience

The drive to improve living conditions for all life should be at the center of contemporary architecture and design.

Architecture for Humanity San Francisco chapter member Garrett Jacobs (left) and a Detroit chapter member look onto decommissioned rail tracks that are in the process of being converted into bike paths. Jacobs and other chapter members were in Detroit to attend the 15th annual Structures for Inclusion conference.

Courtesy Architecture for Humanity San Francisco’s Facebook page

On a bright April weekend, a group of committed, passionate, accomplished designers and their collaborators from the Americas and elsewhere gathered in downtown Detroit to speak about socially responsible design. It was the 15th annual Structures for Inclusion conference. The convener, Bryan Bell, is the architect behind the nonprofit organization Design Corps, and the spirit behind the SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) rating program.

What better place to connect on the issues of social responsibility than in this once prosperous, beautiful city of creative people—the home of the American auto industry and Motown. But the heyday of those eras was a time when investment in cities, their people, and community was still part of our ethos. Then came outsourcing, disinvestment, abandonment, and decay. Here, in this slowly reviving place that put “urban farming” into our consciousness—hundreds of abandoned buildings were torn down to make way for subsistence farming—there are signs of new life. But there’s a lot to be done, as one local audience member pointed out. If you “go to Martin Luther King and Third,” he said, you still find “a fourth-world place.”

Why do we need to segregate social consciousness as a marginal practice in architecture?
Over the weekend, we listened to the inspiring stories of many real-world projects—from Rio to Oklahoma, Mexico to Rwanda. We heard about a new master’s degree in public-interest design and design/build programs in architecture schools that address local community needs while researching building materials and process.

A potentially far-reaching development, announced at last year’s Greenbuild to little fanfare, is the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) adding social consciousness to its LEED rating system through SEED, thus putting humanity into sustainable design. This is good. But let’s keep asking ourselves: Why do we need to segregate social consciousness as a marginal practice in architecture? Why can’t architecture everywhere put human beings (in all our poor and rich conditions) and the environment that supports every life, at the center of all design?

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